I have heard a lot in my life about guilt and about shame. These two negative emotions have very different impacts on life and on behavior, and I want to share some of what I have learned, through study, self-reflection, careful thought, and the love of those closest to me. This is how I learned to identify them and put them behind me, and I hope it helps you to do the same, so you can take back your life and live it more fully.
Most simply, guilt is something you feel that makes you regret a previous behavior and want to make amends, and to do better next time, too. Shame is an ouroboros, feeding on itself, going nowhere, accomplishing nothing useful, and providing no help. It is not even fuel to be burned, like anger (properly managed) can be.
Shame ruins everything you allow it to touch; there is no upside to it. It causes self-destructive behavior built on denial and pain. Shame has no opposite to balance it out; the only thing I have found that can counter it at all is a combination of honesty and love. Honesty with yourself, harsh honesty if needed, to see what you really did that makes you feel this way. You may be surprised that it doesn’t hold up as you thought it did. This makes it easier to move on.
Of course, sometimes it truly is as bad as you feared, but when you admit that to yourself first, you take away most of its power at once. Denial is a heavy blanket that weighs you down everywhere you go; it keeps you from breathing properly, from acting effectively, and from seeing what is really around you, even right in front of your face. Allow yourself to stare that pain down and feel it for a moment, then allow yourself to step away without breaking eye contact.
Shame cannot survive being spoken. Fears, too, often lose their power when you can put a name to them and call them out.
Face up to your deepest fears, your worst shame, and you lift the blanket of denial. Like coming up for air, you will immediately feel lighter, even if the shock of that air and that brightness may overwhelm you at first. To carry this metaphor to fruition, this also lets you move freely again. It can feel very different, suddenly having the ability to reach out and say or do something that felt unattainable before. But when you do this, you immediately take back some of the power to help yourself and to change what you’ve brought to be.
After honesty comes love.
Part of shame’s power to imprison your mind and heart is that it wields fear like a physical weapon. Fear hurts, and you can shy away from its touch, even for years. Many have this ingrained in them. But I have only found two things that can beat back fear. One is courage: not the absence of fear, but the determination to act from knowing that something else is more important. Sometimes clear thinking can help you reach this point, when you realize something new, or when someone else helps open your eyes to a truth you had overlooked.
But even more powerful and more sweeping is love. Love can wash fear away like the surf of a rising tide. This does not always happen automatically. Sometimes you have to burn away the denial with that lens of honesty before you can find the love beneath it, for denial can hide even that, when you give it enough power over enough time. But love unveiled can be your strongest defense and your greatest tool.
Love for another can make you choose to risk your life, or to give up something valuable, if you can help them. It can help you to overcome your lifelong shyness or your fear of embarrassment to step up and say a kind word to someone in need, or to someone in pain. This can be the protective love of a parent for a child, or a friend for another, or the selfless love of anyone for a stranger. It is all the same power, and it can inspire awe and help you to master any fear you have, as long as you can feel it openly.
Honesty can help you to see someone you love who is hurting, and to recognize that your love can help that person. This person can be someone with whom you are close, or someone distant to whom you want to reach out, or a total stranger you encounter seemingly by chance. It can even be yourself. Be honest, first, and then allow yourself to love someone – someone else, or your own being. No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.
If you have lived with shame, you are almost certainly telling yourself lies. Maybe someone else put them there in the beginning, and whether you hear their voice in your head and your heart, or whether you hear your own, shame does nothing but erode everything you are that matters. It saps your energy, it keeps you cold and still and quiet, and it robs you of your very life, one inch and one drop at a time. It serves nothing but pain and fear.
Guilt over actions means you see that you can do better. THAT is a fueling emotion that you can use to reach out and help someone. Even yourself! If you committed some offense that no one has even discovered yet, but you feel guilty about it, you can make yourself feel better if you take action to make it right, and right now. If you wronged another, honesty and love are still your best tools to set things right again. Speak the truth with humility and show that person some love. No, it may not always be possible to make things truly right, but you only have a chance to do better if you take action.
Don’t wait. Do it now. Look inside, talk with someone you trust, or talk with yourself in the mirror. But be honest. Then be kind. Even if you think you don’t know kindness, then you already know everything else that hurts. Say something that you’ve never heard anyone say. See how it makes you feel. If it surprises you and lifts your heart, start with that. You may have just discovered kindness on your own. And when you share that with the world, honestly, you will quickly find that kindness attracts more kindness, and you will learn even faster how it feels, and how to cultivate it everywhere you can. Then you’re making yourself and your world a better place.